The 2018 college football season gets fully underway on Thursday night! The rightful national champs (UCF) will begin their season-long title defense, Minnesota’s walk-on true-freshman quarterback will start his first game, and Northwestern and Purdue … will be playing each other. It’s a fun time of year, so to celebrate, the Ringer staff named its 2018 Preseason College Football Lettermen: a.k.a. the coach and players we’re most looking forward to watching this season. Here’s our list.
Head Coach: Herm Edwards, Arizona State
Shaker Samman: When you think college football, you think speed. You think power. You think youthfulness and vigor and a dozen synonyms for brashness that you can only find in programs willing to run a triple option or go for the sticks on fourth-and-40. And this season, you’ll think about 64-year-old Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Herman Edwards, second of his name. Ignore the fact that he last coached football a decade ago, when his NFL coaching career came to an end, and that his last stint at the collegiate level came in 1989, long before any of his players were even glimmers in their parents’ eyes. Herm is a winner [Editor’s note: Herm went 54-74 as a head coach in the NFL and won just two playoff games.], and he’s here to turn the ASU program around.
Who cares if he’s confused by national signing day because “in pro football, you get to draft them. In college, they get to pick you!” Or that he’s only now learning that recruiting involves staying in contact with his prospective stars. Or that he’s looking at cutting scholarship players and may have possibly forgotten what his school’s mascot is. Arizona State enters the season with one of the better quarterbacks in the Pac-12 in Manny Wilkins, and junior wide receiver N’Keal Harry could be college football’s breakout star. The talent in Tempe is certainly good enough to improve on last year’s seven-win season. But to win games in a tough conference, you have to be resolute. You know, like a great, big, wooden desk.
Quarterback: McKenzie Milton, UCF
Zach Kram: We cover college football on the internet, so of course we’re enamored of a dual-threat, statistically prolific quarterback from a mid-major conference. Indeed, Milton might be just the latest in a long series of similarly oriented QBs, but he might also be the best of the bunch. UCF led the country in scoring last year at 48.2 points per game, and Milton was its muse, ranking second nationally in passer rating and yards per attempt, behind only Heisman winner and no. 1 NFL draft pick Baker Mayfield.
And Milton’s season looks even better when placed against historical competition, as he threw for more than 4,000 yards and ran for more than 600. The only other college players this decade to reach both of those benchmarks are Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, and Deshaun Watson (twice). Every one of those quarterbacks won a Heisman or a national championship in his college career, so this year, Milton’s senior season, he’s due.
Except wait—Milton already won a national title with UCF last year. The pattern holds!
Running Back: Bryce Love, Stanford
Danny Heifetz: Bryce Love returned to Stanford this year to finish his human biology major. On the side, he’ll be moonlighting as the odds-on favorite to win the 2018 Heisman Trophy. Last season, Love averaged a mind-boggling 8.05 yards per carry and 163 yards per game, and he scored 19 touchdowns. He set an FBS record with 13 rushes of more than 50-plus yards. Arizona was the only team in FBS to have more. “Juke” and “cut” are such harsh words. Love doesn’t quite those things. He glides and churns.
Stanford RB Bryce Love with the effort and drive pic.twitter.com/LGwkhqCqJn— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) December 29, 2017
Stanford is ranked 13th heading into the season, and if it remains one of the best teams in the country while Love once again averages more than 8 yards per carry, he could hoist the Heisman in December––and maybe lead Stanford to the Playoff too.
Wide Receiver: Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
Michael Baumann: In 2017, Deebo Samuel played in just three games before suffering a season-ending broken leg from which he’s still recovering. In those three games, between returns, receptions, and rushing attempts, he had 19 touches and scored on six of them. He hasn’t been tackled on a kickoff return since the 2016 Birmingham Bowl.
Samuel, who is one of the fastest football players I’ve ever seen, shatters any mold. His size (6 foot, 210 pounds) and speed makes him a nominal receiver, but the Gamecocks’ offense is most (perhaps only) dynamic when Samuel has the ball with an easy angle to turn the corner on the first tackler. It’s interesting, but not entirely surprising, that Samuel has seven career rushing touchdowns but only five career receiving touchdowns—he is deadly on end arounds and long pitches. Samuel is shifty enough to avoid tacklers and strong enough to fight through contact, but he is as good as anyone I’ve ever seen at identifying a seam and running like hell through it.
Tight End: Albert Okwuegbunam, Mizzou
Samman: Making an impact as a freshman in the SEC is difficult. Tying for the conference lead in touchdown receptions is damn near impossible—but that’s exactly what Okwuegbunam did last fall. The Missouri tight end started the season at the end of the bench with a redshirt in hand, and he ended it tied for the most touchdown catches among tight ends in the country. Part of that has to do with field position (just two of Okwuegbunam’s 29 receptions last season went for 25 or more yards), but the other part has to do with his sheer size. At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Okwuegbunam is big enough to bring down arm punts in the corner of the end zone and strong enough to run over even the toughest of linebackers.
Only five of Mizzou’s opponents this year are projected to finish in the top 50 in S&P+, meaning Okwuegbunam will have plenty of opportunities to take advantage of potentially porous defenses. If quarterback Drew Lock can manage a second-consecutive strong season for the Tigers, his tight end will—quite literally—be a big reason why.
Offensive Lineman: Beau Benzschawel, Wisconsin
Baumann: Wisconsin, that great bastion of dairy-fed Americana, is a special place where large spherical tailbacks chug-chug-chug to glory 100 yards at a time behind larger, rounder, offensive linemen who plow along like a team of oxen in peach fuzz and flannel. So, to honor Wisconsin’s entire offensive line, Benzschawel is here to serve as a representative. Benzschawel, one of two redshirt seniors on the line, stands 6-foot-6, none of which is neck, and has the mobility to range downfield on screens, the finesse to usher defenders harmlessly to the outside, and the strength to dig his heels in and stand up a defensive tackle. Basically, he’s as immovable as a stubborn oak tree.
Defensive Lineman: Ed Oliver, Houston
Samman: Last season, The Ringer named 11 Preseason Lettermen. Of them, the only player making a repeat appearance this year is Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver, and for good reason. In two seasons at Houston, Oliver has logged 10.5 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. That production has elevated him, once again, to the status of defensive Heisman candidate—a spot most recently reserved for acrobatic defensive backs like Jabrill Peppers and Derwin James but not foreign to huskier heroes like Ndamukong Suh.
At 6-foot-3, 292 pounds, Oliver is big enough to take on any offensive lineman that comes his way. He’s essentially already declared for the 2019 NFL draft, despite not yet playing a single game in 2018, and nothing he’s shown in the past suggests he won’t be a top pick. Last summer, my colleague Michael Baumann called Oliver “a cross between La’roi Glover and an extremely happy bear who can read minds.” Even that might not hammer the point home hard enough: Ed Oliver is death, destroyer of worlds. There are only so many weeks left in his college career. Here’s hoping he ends it with a Heisman.
Linebacker: Dakota Allen, Texas Tech
Baumann: The only player in the history of Last Chance U to actually make an impact after leaving EMCC, Allen is in his second go-around at Texas Tech after he was arrested and charged with second-degree burglary in 2016. Allen matured during his year in Mississippi, was named a team captain in 2017, and returns as pretty much the platonic ideal of a college inside linebacker: He’s quick, tenacious, and a secure tackler. He’s not going to throw offensive linemen around or chase down receivers from behind, but he’s completely reliable.
Cornerback: Greedy Williams, LSU
Heifetz: From the school that brought you Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, Jalen Mills, Tre’Davious White, Donte Jackson, and Jamal Adams comes the newest defensive back extraordinaire: Greedy Williams. His aunt gave him the nickname “Greedy Deedy” because he needed so many bottles as a baby, and it stuck. “Greedy” is the perfect name for a cornerback.
A four-star recruit, Williams unexpectedly redshirted his freshman year under Les Miles in 2016, and in 2017 turned a Week 1 spot start into a full-time gig after grabbing an interception on BYU’s second drive of the game. By the end of the season, Williams led the SEC in interceptions and passes defensed, just the third time a player has led the conference in both in the 10 years the data has been available. He also had the lowest opposer passer rating when targeted of any SEC cornerback, per Pro Football Focus. Williams is projected as a first-round pick in 2019, but first he has his eyes on passing Corey Webster (16) on LSU’s all-time interception leaderboard. If Williams wants to do that this season, he’ll need to snag 10 picks. Greedy indeed.
Safety: Jaquan Johnson, Miami
Paolo Uggetti: Jaquan Johnson is a 5-foot-11, 195-pound, turnover-thirsty machine. Don’t let the size fool you—Johnson is a force and could have been drafted last season but opted to come back for his senior year. Given that he recently confirmed that The U’s turnover chain will be making a return this season, you can’t not say that he didn’t come back to school just so that he could get a few more precious moments with the best (and gaudiest) accessory in college football.
Johnson had plenty of time with Miami’s golden ornament last season. He forced three fumbles and added four interceptions, all of which were highlight-reel material. The safety had a crucial pick-six against Virginia, a diving interception against Syracuse, and then, against Virginia Tech, he showed just the right amount of touch:
If you want to watch turnovers be celebrated with the proper pageantry this season, watch Miami—and keep an eye on Johnson.
Kicker/Punter: Rodrigo Blankenship, Georgia
Uggetti: When did glasses become cool? As a glasses-wearer myself (I am as close to legally blind as you can be without actually being legally blind), I’ve seen them evolve from dorky to edgy over the years. But here’s when glasses actually became cool: During last season’s national championship game, when Rodrigo Blankenship stepped onto the field and drained all three of his field goal attempts from 27, 41, and 51 yards—all while wearing thick, black-rimmed glasses that could be more appropriately described as goggles. The internet fell in love. And even though Georgia eventually lost, Blankenship made sure it wasn’t because of this glorious glasses-wearing #collegekicker.
Blankenship returns this year for his junior season, and he has every bit of the cult-hero vibe going for him. Georgia is once again talented enough to contend for a title, and I am hoping, praying, that Blankenship gets another appearance in the limelight to prove to everyone that glasses are cool … if you also have a cannon for a leg.